End of Semester Review: the Story Continues

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

It’s that time of year for an end of semester review. Spring 2011 and a few prior to that were dispiriting times in my career. Just after I was hired at the college full time in 1998, I had my first experience of walking into a writing classroom with about seven or so people in it on “paper due” day, wondering where all the students were. Turns out all other students had either dropped or stopped attending (I’ve entered classrooms where one or two students were there, with absolutely no plan B). This was a class of 24 students to start and it hit me that something had changed about the ethos of that particular classroom. It’s became habitual for writing classes to dwindle after about the fifth week from full to half, give or take a few people. Spring 2011 was no different. I even thought that it might be time to quit.

I took on a summer course and changed a few things. I provided students with what I call practice lessons in paragraph copying, grammar, and analysis work, real by the numbers stuff: do this, do it again, do it again, now do it again. By analysis I refer to the act of applying evidence and reasoning standards and interpreting ideas for significance. This gave the summer students more intensive work, but more students completed the course–and I responded with a “hm.” I tried the same this semester, but finding practice for students to do beyond paper development was difficult in the extended semester (so much space in between things), which I now consider too long. We should move to eight week semesters.

This semester, I developed fairly straight-forward assignments and have more completers, this despite Storm What’shisname, and the intensified load. Yet, I find the end-game grading more difficult, not because of the pressure of getting them done, but because the matter for grading is becoming stranger: as in what I read as “final drafts” often doesn’t reflect a semester’s worth of specific learning technique. Most of the students in our classes are moving to college with the baggage of NCLB around their necks and were little more than toddlers when G.W. Bush became president. Their centers of gravity are very different from students I saw in the early nineties and early twenties. Their frames of reference are difficult for me to understand, as I don’t necessarily know what they interpret when I say things like “context,” “conclusion,” “analysis,” and “deadline.” In many ways this reflects no difference between a college freshman experience of any other representative time. But, then again, years ago, the audience hadn’t yet been split into its several cultural fragments.

One element I must cope with in the future is the question of requirements and standards and being mindful of the purpose of the college classroom. At the college, I’m an interdiscipline person, a generalist, with a principle interest in new media I hope that’s not a contradiction). But the notion of an academic discipline is still severely important in the context of knowledge interpretation, development, and creative problem solving, and from a discipline perspective, the college classroom is in many respects bent on expressing a coherent and precise history of a discipline, providing a framework for its genre of questions, and opening doors for supplementation. We can never know enough about any one thing.

My job isn’t all that hard, and my subject matter is graspable by majorities. But I often wonder as I read student work whether the subject matter to them has become peculiar, frustrating, and strangely disaffecting. It’s no longer a question of “why should I know this” but “what is this stuff you’re talking about?” Sometimes I wonder if certain student have a notion or a conception of the subject at hand given their histories, their backgrounds, and their habits, and this is a remarkable turn of events.

The Common Questions
Students come to my office with grave concerns and sincere questions. Even this video which as seen its rounds misses something keen in the elastic relationships of teacher/student. That the student is, indeed, sincere in their concern about grade. Moreover, the discipline required to demonstrate honest learning may be absent in the students’ methods and process. I see too many students who simply don’t understand that what is said in the classroom requires practice outside the classroom to engender development of mind. I see too many students who simply think that they can memorize on the spot and transfer later. I don’t doubt that this is a sincere “belief” because I haven’t the evidence to think differently. But I can, from my conversations, conclude that many of the people I work with have very little exposure to the debates and ideas of the day and don’t really involve themselves in them.

Throughout the semester, students expressed real shock at their early scores on our colleges standards of evaluation, which are meant to be low to give students means of improvement. They visited my office and informed me that they’d always received Bs or As and so what was up with me and my grading. This was always supplied in a tone of accusation. The student couldn’t comprehend that they were accusing me–offering fault–of being unfair as they sought answers for their own underperformance against the standards. I told them: “study and you’ll improve.” Theory: people improve when they study in method courses.

Grades are indeed a means of judging. But grades in college are institutional symbols; they’re an exposed stitch in an otherwise ambiguous universe of hidden twingles, knots, and shadowy patterns. In a perfect world, students would read an evaluation and then retire to the cloister and improve where they were asked to improve, trusting that there was some rhyme to the stanza, which is simply one of a rather long and dense poem, whose deeper parts will unravel later in life. I often find that these conversations lead to mutual frustration. I seek the language of explanation, encouragement, and development. The student wants assurance that their GPA will be okay in the end, that they won’t ultimately be harmed (which is symbolic harm); but they rarely express concern about subject matter knowledge. We’re not, in the end, understanding each other. Neither of us is, perhaps, at fault.

But many of my students learned something. Many of them inspired me. Many will be not be happy, and my colleagues and I have a lot still to talk about:

1. Intensifying a semester often filled with too much space
2. Diminishing the pressure of grades
3. Prepping for students who will be coming with yet stranger habits and expectations
4. Figuring how to tap into talent and new talents

I like the studio art method where grades are withheld till the end but learning is asked for throughout. I also like the proposition of gradeless completion and let the market hash out competence. Isn’t this what portfolios are for? If there are portfolios, why do we need grades? Note that grades and evaluative standards are not the same thing.

2 responses to “End of Semester Review: the Story Continues”

  1. stormysu says:

    A thoughtful and thought provoking piece.

  2. Darren says:

    Regarding the sincerity of student reaction I think Barzun’s brief analysis about the transition to college is telling:

    “In four years they [Liberal Arts Colleges — interchangeable now with other collegiate institutions] often manage to reawaken the high school graduate narcotized by the special dullness of the eleventh and twelfth grades. The college, moreover, sometimes give the able student a command of one of the elements — language, logic, or number — which have hitherto eluded him: the cripple is first given a crutch and then taught to walk without it.”
    – The House of Intellect

    I’d go further than Barzun who wrote predominately in another era, and attach his two primary adjectives to the entirety of the high school curriculum which I experienced. You have the unfortunate task of compensating for the failures of an educational system which places effort above result.